Thursday, December 07, 2006

Essential Books: The Closing of the American Mind

Back to book reviews. I've recently read through Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" and was struck by its incisive nature. Put simply, the book is one long expose of the American academy. Bloom, a University of Chicago political philosophy professor who passed away nearly fifteen years ago, wrote this thundering text to address the weaknesses of the postmodern university, with its ironclad commitment to personal autonomy and institutional liberalism.

First things first. Bloom sees the university almost as the church of its students, a role that I would have to reject. Universities as he sees them are designed to inculcate character and virtue, a claim I would not disagree with, but I would sound the note of emphasis on the family. It is the family that is of preeminent importance in morally and philosophically training the child, at least on a basic and medium level of thought. In addition, the church trains the child in the ways of truth and righteousness. Bloom, a homosexual, spoke little of the need for the church to train this postmodern generation. Finally, Bloom's solution for the ills of the modern university, awash in political correctness and hypocrisy as it is, is the "Great Books" curriculum. I don't have a major quarrel with this thinking, but I would have to say that I think change of a far more rigorous nature is needed for the American university to rise to its former level of greatness. The American university was once founded on something, specifically, Christian thought (to varying degrees and with exceptions). The current ideological basis of the system is agnostic liberalism. Is it any wonder that our students, like Charlotte, are wading in excess?

With these things said, the book masterfully diagnoses the culture of higher education today. Bloom is especially good in analyzing the politics of race and sex that dominate today. He rightly sees that tolerance has won sway on college campuses, and he boldly denounces political correctness and the disastrous campus codes it has birthed. He writes fluidly and confidently, assuming the tone of a master thinker looking down over the campus culture and seeing its flaws and foibles. Though as noted above I do not approach the university with the same optimism that he does, I do wholeheartedly agree with his assessment that the modern university has laid aside any pretense of moral and character education and devoted itself to the coddling of students. Bloom wishes the university to teach its students not only a body of thought, but a way to live. This is a commendable aim. It is almost entirely lost in our age. Bloom is spot-on.

I might add that I find Bloom's views on rock music a bit curious (stuffy philosophers tend to look down on fun music, after all), but he is dead-on in analyzing the self-centered transactional nature of contemporary relationships. He has also spotted that many students are little more than professional test-takers with little interest in the riches of academic study. In short, Bloom is a masterful exegete of modern culture, and it is for this reason that I would highly commend "The Closing of the American Mind" to all who wish to better understand the zeitgeist of our modern age. It is essential reading.


Anonymous BC said...

You raise some interesting questions, Owen, on the nature of the University.

Re: the University and the Church: Bloom likely follows L. Straus in "City and Man" where he would establish political philosophy as "queen of the social sciences."

I find it interesting that you would place the focus of the University on the student. One might argue that the focus should rather be knowledge. One might then argue whether the goal of the University should be the preservation or creation of knowledge.

But that said, anyone advancing these ideas is, I think, going to have to answer a more venal question. Isn't the object of the University to prepare the youth for the workforce?

All that said, you might consider David Denby's "Great Books" - it's an account of Columbia's great books program from the view of a 40 year old auditor.


10:41 AM  

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